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The Flavor of a Town
These recipes from Seattle's 'Best Places' just beg to be tried at home

Chef-authors Cynthia Nims, left, and Kathy Casey toast their new book with a couple of the cocktails featured in it.

Once upon a time, restaurant cooks tried to re-create home-cooked food. Mostly they failed, and anyone with any sense knew that if you wanted good food, you had to stay home and cook it. A café or a restaurant was rated on how close the experience of dining there came to capturing the pleasures of a good home-cooked meal. Was that grilled steak as good as the one Dad whipped up on the backyard barbecue? Could the baker make an apple pie as good as Mom's?

But as a character in a play by Tennessee Williams once said, "The tables have turned; they've turned with a vengeance." These days, home cooking is practically a lost art, and the home cook is more often judged by how well he or she can create the kind of food we find in restaurants. Is Mom's Thai food as good as Bahn Thai on Roy Street? Can you make a nettle soup as good as Bruce Naftaly's at Le Gourmand in Ballard? And if you make a blackberry tart, will it compare to the one at Chez Shea in the Pike Place Market?

Chances are, most home cooks can't match the food we find in today's restaurants. American restaurants in general, and Seattle's in particular, are in the midst of an unprecedented upsurge in quality. It could be effectively argued that the food you are likely to find in this city's better restaurants these days is as good as any food that any people have ever eaten.

"This twist on rum punch is the creation of Waterfront Restaurant's beverage manager Jude Augustine," Cynthia Nims and Kathy Casey say. "You could multiply the quantities to make a pitcher for a party: Combine the ingredients with a couple of handfuls of ice and stir well to blend, then pour the punch into ice-filled glasses for serving."

Makes 1 serving

1 fluid ounce pineapple juice
1 fluid ounce sweet-and-sour mix
2/3 fluid ounce dark rum
2/3 fluid ounce amaretto
Splash Chambord
Splash soda
Lime slice, for garnish
Maraschino cherry, for garnish

Half-fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add the pineapple juice, sweet-and-sour mix, rum, amaretto, Chambord and soda. Cover the shaker and shake until well chilled, then pour the contents, ice included, into a tall cocktail glass. Garnish the rim of the glass with the lime slice, float the cherry on top, and serve.

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Thanks to a new book out this fall, Seattle's home cooks at least stand a fighting chance of producing food as good as what we eat in restaurants. In 125 recipes and 24 sharp little essays, authors Cynthia Nims and Kathy Casey have produced a portrait of the Seattle food scene that is bright, contemporary and, best of all, useful. "Best Places Seattle Cookbook: Recipes from the City's Outstanding Restaurants and Bars" ($19.95, Sasquatch Books) is more than a snapshot of the food and drink that professionals cook and serve right now. It's the kind of book that could help determine what people will be cooking at home.

"It's an eclectic collection," says Nims. But that description doesn't quite capture the wide range of recipes that Nims hammered into a neat, uniform style. Some of the recipes are nostalgic, some are cutting edge, some are quintessentially American, others are decidedly not. "There is such a broad spectrum of foods in Seattle; I really wanted the book to capture that," says Nims.

The recipes, divided into five categories from appetizers to drinks, are diverse, and more importantly, they're reliable and good. From a recipe for "Lemon Grass Rubbed Filet with Braised Short Ribs and Spicy Red Pepper Sauce," submitted by Chef Tim Kelly at The Painted Table to "Nectarine Blackberry Crisp" from Anthony's Homeport, the recipes run the gamut in terms of complexity. And thanks to Nims' careful editing, all are well-suited to the home cook. She tested each recipe at home on her 1950s Hotpoint stove.

"If I can cook them on my stove," she says, "anyone can make these recipes at home." A life-long Northwesterner, Nims also co-authored "The Northwest Best Places Cookbook" and "The Northern California Best Places Cookbook." She is food editor of Seattle Magazine and holds the prestigious Grand Diplome d'Etudes Culinaires from La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, France. Nims was also the editor of the gone but not forgotten Simply Seafood magazine, and it was there that she met Kathy Casey.

After a stellar run at Fullers restaurant in the Seattle Sheraton, the young Casey had moved to New York and started her consulting career, but it wasn't long before she was lured back to her hometown. Casey wrote her first published story for Simply Seafood and was a contributor for as long as the magazine was on the shelves. Now, her "Dishing" column appears the first Wednesday of each month in The Seattle Times' Food section.

In "Best Places," Casey's essays range from riffs on the good things that come from Eastern Washington to a little primer on peppers. Taken as a whole, they ground the book in Seattle's soil and frame the recipes in a cornucopia of historical, gastronomical and just plain chatty tidbits. But there is a strategy here. Typically no more than a page or two in length, the little prose pieces provide readers with a better understanding of how professionals choose their ingredients and why chefs and bartenders perform all those strange and wonderful steps that give their plates and glasses a subtle edge.

"I tried to make the essays really useful to home cooks," says Casey. One in particular, called "Chef's Secrets," is worth the price of the book. In it, Casey identifies four simple secrets that home cooks can borrow from professionals to make their work in the kitchen more gratifying. These are things most pros do without really thinking about it. But seeing them spelled out will help any cook perform more efficiently and more creatively.

The chapter on drinks and accompanying essay on cocktails brings into focus the fact that, like a good wine cellar, a cutting-edge carte of cocktails can define a restaurant's or a home party-giver's style. "I'm doing a lot of work with cocktails now," says Casey. "Every restaurant needs a signature drink. They need a way to interpret the standard cocktails so that they reflect what's going on in the kitchen."

"And we really had fun testing those cocktail recipes," Nims says with glee.

Ultimately, what makes this book such a hoot, and what will undoubtedly make it an enduring collection of Seattle recipes, is the combination of fun and professionalism that both women have brought to the project. Home cooks who want to cook and entertain like big-city chefs will find a lot to work with here.

Greg Atkinson, executive chef at Canlis restaurant, is the author of "In Season" (1997) and "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (1999) from Sasquatch Books.

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